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Jon Healey: A trashy gossip tabloid should not care about its reputation
February 11, 2019
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The Bezos-Pecker story that won the Internet on Thursday raised a number of, umm, titillating questions to ponder.

How did the National Enquirer get copies of the very private texts that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos exchanged with his mistress? Was Enquirer honcho David Pecker trying to humiliate Bezos as a favour to Pecker’s pal in the White House, President Donald Trump, who is warring with the Bezos-owned Washington Post? (It’s a war with new skirmishes daily.) And why on earth did top Enquirer officials — including its deputy general counsel, for heaven’s sake — put in writing what appears to be a textbook example of an extortionate demand?

Here’s hoping that Bezos will spend some of his massive but soon-to-be-diminished wealth on a lawsuit that will make public the answers to these enquiries. For now, all we have is speculation. Some of it is interesting and meaningful to the average American — I’d point to ruminations like this on how your texts can migrate from your phone to other devices automatically, making them far less private than you think:

Interestingly, a lawyer for the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., said in an email to Bezos’ team that “it undertook no electronic eavesdropping in connection with its reporting and has no knowledge of such conduct.” Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Enquirer got the texts and photos from a third party who kept mum about their provenance.

But here’s the question that’s sticking in my mind: why was the Enquirer so determined to get Bezos and his investigator, Gavin de Becker, to walk back some pretty run-of-the-mill criticism of the Enquirer? Here’s a central demand that American Media lawyer Jon Fine sent in an email to De Becker’s attorney, per Bezos’ blog post:

“A public, mutually-agreed upon acknowledgment from the Bezos Parties, released through a mutually-agreeable news outlet, affirming that they have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AM’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces, and an agreement that they will cease referring to such a possibility.”

This is what the Enquirer was threatening Bezos over? Really?

A supermarket tabloid whose stock in trade is trashy celebrity gossip and conspiracy theories, the National Enquirer can hardly worry about its reputation being sullied by accusations that it doesn’t practice even-handed journalism. Beyond that, it has already admitted to engaging in “catch and kill” — that is, buying the exclusive rights to a scandalous expose, then not publishing it — to stop a former Playboy model from talking about her alleged affair with Trump before the 2016 election.

So, what could Bezos or De Becker possibly say about the Enquirer that would lower its reputation further? And they may not have been the only one threatened on this point — journalist Ronan Farrow tweeted on Thursday that he and one other, unnamed journalists “fielded similar ‘stop digging or we’ll ruin you’ blackmail efforts” from American Media as they were reporting on its relationship with Trump.

Fine, the American Media lawyer, accused members of the Bezos team of making “defamatory statements” about the company by speculating that it had political motives for covering Bezos’ affair. But according to the Second Restatement of Torts (a common law reference manual), “a communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.”

Again, American Media admitted that political motivations influence its work, so how could its reputation be affected here?

Tribune News Service

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